PG-13 movies showcase the most – and the most unrealistic – gun violence, study shows

The last three years’ worth of Hollywood blockbusters represent an escalation of gun violence depicted in film, and have exposed more families and younger teens to mayhem devoid of consequence, a team of researchers has found. 

Gun violence — albeit largely bloodless and free of such troubling effects as dismemberment, death or psychological trauma — remains a prominent staple of films bearing the PG-13 rating, media analysts from the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center have concluded. 

But since 2013, when the team last reported its measurement of violent content in popular films, those PG-13-rated films have grown to represent a greater share of the nation’s top-grossing movies. As a result, more children and families are being exposed to consequence-free gun violence in film, they said.

“What increasingly differentiates the instances of gun violence in PG-13 films from those rated R is not only the higher frequency in the PG-13 category, but also these films’ erasure of the consequences (e.g., blood and suffering),” wrote the three authors of a “Perspectives” essay published late Tuesday in the journal Pediatrics.

The researchers suggested that filmmakers intent on making movies that would garner a PG-13 rating don’t stint on portraying violence. But in a bid to adhere to standards established in the1980s for allowable violence in such movies, they’re careful not to dwell on scenes of gore and prolonged mayhem. Instead, they increasingly employ animated and fantasy violence.

Compared with R-rated films, movies that bear a PG-13 rating were more likely to feature “violence perpetrated by or on comic book-inspired heroes and antiheroes,” including Batman, Avengers and X-Men, the trio wrote.

Such findings, wrote Daniel Romer, Patrick E. Jamieson and Kathleen Hall Jamieson, “should give us pause.”

“Research on content that portrays smoking or drinking without featuring the harmful consequences demonstrates that some adolescents, as a result of repeated exposure, are prone to imitate such screen behaviors,” the researchers observed.

“Why,” they asked, “would acceptance of gun violence be any different?”

In a 2009 policy statement, the American Academy of Pediatrics cited “extensive research evidence” indicating that “media violence can contribute to aggressive behavior, desensitization to violence, nightmares, and fear of being harmed.”

The new essay focuses particularly on the numbing effect that persistent and repeated violence in films marketed to families may have on children and their parents.

“Movie-going families are now undergoing an experiment in which children of any age can enter a theater to watch a PG-13 film in which the protagonists gain power, settle conflicts, and kill or are killed by lethal weapons,” they wrote. “At the same time, tolerance for such fare is being heightened.”

Parents become inured to the level of violence they see, and are less likely to steer a child from such movies, they say. Children, meanwhile, are increasingly consuming a steady visual diet of fighting and killing.

Until more is known about the effects of film violence on young viewers, “pediatricians should consider advising parents to be cautious about exposing their children to the gun violence in PG-13 movies,” the authors concluded.

melissa.healy@latimes.com

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